Prison Copy: 6 Ways To Bulk Up Your Conversions With “The Boron Letters”

by John McIntyre

This is a guest post on The Boron Letters by Austin Lee. Austin is a freelance copywriter who helps 6 and 7-figure businesses grow sales with engaging email autoresponders. 

Dear Friend,

Did you know Gary Halbert once ran a hilarious ad in an LA newspaper (I suppose you would call it a “lead generation”)…

…to recruit potential girlfriends?

Rumor has it, the ad pulled in hundreds of phone calls from highly interested women who couldn’t wait to jump his bones.

This is one of dozens of ridiculous, but brilliant stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues of the late, great copywriting legend and “Prince Of Print”, Gary Halbert.

What some people don’t know, is that he spent hard time in “Club Fed”, Boron Federal Prison Camp in the Mojave Desert of California.

It was here that he penned the timeless marketing masterpiece in a series of 25 letters to his son Bond.

Not only is it a world-class education in copywriting and direct marketing principles — but it’s also a sage chronicle and vulnerable account of navigating life’s hurdles, dealing tactfully with foes, and remaining disciplined in dark times.

Use it to make mucho dinero, and learn from the greatest copywriter who ever lived.

1. Which Pile Does Your Message Land In? (Chapter 11 of The Boron Letters)

There’s one key difference between a message that gets opened, and one that swirls down the virtual crapper into oblivion.

And it’s one of the reasons why marketing “big dogs” send plain text, borderline-ugly emails to their lists.

It predates Halbert and The Boron Letters, and I’m positive it will apply for as long as humans roam the earth.

The idea is this:

People sift through their “mail” (or email, Facebook, ANY place they receive messages) over the virtual toilet.

Anything in the “A” pile get’s kept, and read…while anything in the “B” pile gets flushed away forever, or at least ignored for the meantime (which hamstrings your probability of conversion).

So, how do you avoid the death-pit “B” pile? Gary says it’s simple:

“…it’s so easy to do! All we have to do is make the envelope look personal. (Or at least we will take pains so it doesn’t look commercial.)”

BOOM. There you have it, and here’s 3 ways to apply it to email marketing:

1) Consider using plain-text emails, and limit the use of commercial-looking HTML banners and photos, which can also land you in the “promotions” tab more often” (obviously, test this and see what works better)

2) Personalize emails with first name. Any email software worth having will let you do this.

3) Make your “From” line a person: who would you rather hear from about landing pages: Unbounce… or Amanda From Unbounce?

We respond more to humans than we do to big, ambiguous companies. And on a biological level, we trust people in our “tribe” more than we do strangers.

2. Would you read this letter? (Chapter 14 & 16)

If you received an envelope with a baggie full of sand, would you read the letter?

I remember hearing someone (maybe Joe Polish) talk about walking into Gary’s office, and finding bags stuffed full of Japanese pennies and other weird paraphernalia from different corners of the earth.

Gary was a master of “lumpy mail” — putting what he called “attention grabbers” inside pieces of mail to seize attention when you opened it.

In Chapter 14 and 16, Gary expands on each step of the timeless sales message formula AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action). For now, let’s put the magnifying glass on the “attention” variable.

He explains to Bond:

“…we must get out readers attention before he can become interested in and desirous of our offer. Getting attention is CRUCIAL.

If you don’t get it, your letter or advertisement will never get read.”

But here’s the thing: cheap attention don’t trick nobody.

It MUST align with your sales message, or else the reader will feel bitter, cheated, or even angry…depending on how misleading your attention grabber was.

His example of the sinful bait ‘n switch:

Headline: A Submarine That Flies

Body Copy: “No, we don’t have a submarine that flies, but our pink pills, etc., etc.”

Since most of you probably aren’t using much direct mail, let’s look at a virtual example. Subject lines are about the closest thing to a grabber I can think of.

One subject line I wrote for a client in the tennis niche read:

“How Sniffing Tennis Balls Wins Matches”

(Ben Settle is a genius at crafting bizarre headlines like this, and he’s the guy I learned from).

This one was popular with my client’s audience, only because it tied in seamlessly with the theme of mental focus, and how his coaching will elevate that aspect of their game.

Taking it one step further, if you make a bold, exciting, or weird claim in your subject line or teaser copy — don’t wait until halfway through the email to address it….

The clock is ticking to fulfill the reader’s curiosity before they feel a tinge of resentment that it’s taking too long to get to the point.

3. How To Get A “Cellular” Knowledge Of Money-Making Copy (Chapter 17)

It’s hard to explain, but this works. All the legends talk about it for a reason, and I’ve personally done it over 100 times.

Handwriting great sales letters, tattoos copywriting into your subconscious mind like ink sinking into your skin.

The rhythm, flow, and vivid imagery will become WAY more apparent when you work through great ads by hand.

(pro tip: only copy the best of the best ads. Here’s a killer zip file John put together to get you started.)

The truth is, human psychology doesn’t change. That’s why even 100-year old ads contain glittering golden nuggets of money-making wisdom.

Even if you’re a business owner who hates copywriting, this will give you a wealth of insights and a deeper understanding of the winning promotions your competitors are using.

How do you know which ones are converting?

Find the repeat promotions you’ve seen over and over again for months or years, and those are likely the ones that convert.

Derek Johanson of suggests finding the competing sales messages that match your medium (VSL or sales letter), and copying the top 1 to 3 promotions by hand — studying their offers, proof, and claims under the magnifying glass.

This should give you a better sense of the battlefield, which weapons your competition has in their arsenal, and how you can adapt your own unique marketing hooks to fire back.

A ‘4-Hour’ Copywriting Education

Here’s an interesting little nugget I learned about a more modern marketing role model of mine:

Tim Ferriss told Joe Polish and Dean Jackson in this podcast episode, that he ended up throwing away chapter after chapter of The 4-Hour Workweek because he couldn’t find his voice.

Here’s what he did to overcome the frustrating blockage:

“So, I hit the same problem and used my own version of a swipe file, in the form of the books that had most influenced my thought process and my writing style, to get me out of that rut.” ~ Tim Ferriss

4. Why The Best Often Go Unnoticed (And Why Your Copy Should, Too)

“Listen up dummy. “If you are writing for applause…you will go home with empty pockets.”

– Gary Halbert, The Boron Letters (Chapter 17)

There’s more than one priceless lesson contained in these words. Write simply. Write to sell. DON’T write for high fives, creativity, or humor.

Halbert says the best copywriting goes unnoticed. And while I do think certain copy “sing” more than others, most of the best performing copy is written at around a 5th-6th grade level.

David Ogilvy comes out swinging in Ogilvy On Advertising, along the same thread:

“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

Just sell the dang thing, and you’ll be fine.

5. How Gary Used “Reason Why” Copy To Generate $40 Million In Sales (Chapter 21)

Ever see one of those movie scenes where the sky blackens under a blanket of flying arrows?

The soldiers hunker down for cover, and when the reign of terror is over, they get up with 38 arrows sticking out of their shield.

While I don’t want you to think of your prospect as someone to sling dangerous objects at…this IS how people feel as they subconsciously shield their minds from the onslaught of promotions hitting their inbox.

How many “deals” can there really be? What’s the reason for the deal?

People are more skeptical than ever, so it’s vital to add believability to the offer.

Gary understood this, and in his legendary “Coat-of-Arms” letter (rumored to have been mailed 600 million times), he crafted a VERY compelling reason for the awesome deal he was presenting to readers.

It was actually quite simple.

All he did, was create a believable story behind the offer. In this case, his wife was already making the product for friends, and had a few extras available if you mail her quickly.

Nothing fancy. And while I don’t advocate manufacturing reasons out of thin air (real ones are always better)…

…you can always dig and find some obscure holiday (find one here), tell a story about why you’re feeling generous, or talk about why you need to empty stock to make room for more.

6. “You Don’t Have To Get It Right…

You Just Have To Get It Moving!”

In an interview I listened to between Ben Settle and Doberman Dan, Dan told 2 fascinating stories about working with Halbert…

The first was about his unflinching ability to take action, even when things weren’t “perfect.”

He’d say: motion is better than meditation.

I know I suffer from over analyzing my writing, but taking a page from the Bible of Halbert (ie. The Boron Letters), I’ve been able to deliver high-quality copy to clients without agonizing for 5 extra hours about how to move the needle 1%.

The second story was about Gary’s attitude towards failure….

He told the life-changing story of running an ad for a book, written in the style of Joe Karbo’s “Lazy Man’s Way To Riches.”

Everyone thought it was going to be a home run, but it totally bombed. His reaction?

“Okay, what else we workin’ on?” No emotion, just onto the next. 

It’s almost a cliche, but even history’s greatest copywriter had his own epic failures.

As far as I can tell, no matter how skilled or prepared you are, the only way to make “mucho fungolas”, as Sir Gary put it…

Is to get it moving!

These letters laid the brickwork of my copywriting foundation, and are my most-recommended resource for learning to write high-powered copy on a budget.

If you’d like a quick way to navigate to any chapter, use this:

The Boron Letters – Chapter Links:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

This is a guest post by  Austin Lee, a freelance copywriter who helps 6 and 7-figure businesses grow sales with engaging email autoresponders. 

If you want to boost the conversions of your sales copy, you need to find message-to-market match. To dial yours in with 5 basic questions, check out Austin’s M.E.M.E. Marketing Guide on his websiteOn the other hand, if you’re an aspiring freelance and want to say hi (or maybe ask a question), hit him up there. 

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